Agent Orange in Korea

Christine AhnIn May, three former U.S. soldiers admitted to dumping hundreds of barrels of chemical substances, including Agent Orange, at Camp Carroll in South Korea in 1978. This explosive news was a harsh reminder to South Koreans of the high costs and lethal trail left behind by the ongoing U.S. military presence.

“We basically buried our garbage in their backyards,” U.S. veteran Steve House told a local news station in Phoenix, Arizona. A heavy equipment operator in the Army, House said he was ordered to dig a ditch the length of a city block to bury 55-gallon drums marked with bright yellow and orange labels: “Province of Vietnam, Compound Orange.” House said that the military buried 250 drums of defoliants stored on the base, which served then as the U.S. Army Material Support Center in Korea. Later they buried chemicals transported from other places on as many as 20 occasions, totaling up to 600 barrels.

“This stuff was just seeping through the barrels,” said Robert Travis, another veteran now living in West Virginia. “There was a smell, I couldn’t describe it, just sickly sweet.” Immediately after wheeling the barrels from a warehouse at Camp Carroll, Travis developed a severe rash; other health problems emerged later. He said there were “approximately 250 drums, all OD (olive drab) green… with a stripe around the barrel dated 1967 for the Republic of Vietnam.”

A third soldier, Richard Cramer of Illinois, said that his feet went numb as he buried barrels of Agent Orange at Camp Carroll. He spent two months in a military hospital and now has swollen ankles and toes, chronic arthritis, eye infections, and impaired hearing. “If we prove what they did was wrong,’ says Cramer, “they should ‘fess up and clean it up and take care of the people involved.”

The three veterans are now seriously ill. Steve House suffers from diabetes and neuropathy, two out of 15 diseases officially linked to Agent Orange. “This is a burden I’ve carried around for 35 years,” House, aged 54, told Associated Press reporters. “I just recently found out that I have to have some major surgery… If I’m going to check out, I want to do it with a clean slate.”

The Missing Barrels

A deadly herbicide, Agent Orange is widely known for its use during the Vietnam War when the U.S. military sprayed an estimated 10 million gallons on forests and rice fields. In Korea, the U.S. military used Agent Orange along the de-militarized zone to defoliate the forests and prevent North Koreans from crossing the border.

“The United States Army has acknowledged that pesticides, herbicides and other toxic compounds were buried at Camp Carroll,” writes New York Times reporter Mark MacDonald. Although the chemicals and about 60 tons of contaminated soil were purportedly dug up and removed, “the Army is still searching its records to discover what became of the excavated chemicals and soil.”

According to a February 25, 2011 report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Far East Command, the U.S. military has discovered evidence of a burial site within Camp Carroll measuring 83 feet long, 46 feet wide, and 20 feet deep. It confirmed contamination on the base with high concentrations of highly carcinogenic perchloroethylene (PCE), pesticides, heavy metals, and components of dioxin. According to Hankyoreh, the report also cites testimony from a Korean employee, Gu Ja-yeong, who worked at Camp Carroll and participated in burying drums, cans, and bottles containing chemicals in 1974 and 1975. The report recommends monitoring once or twice a year and removing the soil from the burial site because ground-water chloroform levels were 24 times the South Korean standard for drinkable water. Chloroform is a carcinogen that can cause liver, kidney, and nervous system problems.

Two earlier environmental studies of Camp Carroll, commissioned by U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK), were not shared with the South Korean government until the recent whistle-blowing by the U.S. vets. In 1992, a Woodward-Clyde report confirmed the burial of toxic chemicals. “Many potential sources of soil and groundwater contamination still exist at the base and the presence of contaminated groundwater has been documented,” the report stated. “From 1979 to 1980, approximately 6,100 cubic feet (40 to 60 tons) of soil were reportedly excavated from this area and disposed offsite.”

Samsung C&T reported on a second survey in 2004. This also found soil samples from the base contained pesticides and dioxins: “Hazardous materials and waste, including solvents, petroleum oils and lubricants, pesticides, herbicides and other industrial chemicals have been used and stored onsite for over 40 years.” The Korea Herald reported, “more than 100 kinds of harmful chemicals including pesticides and herbicides were buried.” Hankyoreh reported that the Samsung survey found “quantities of highly carcinogenic trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE) at 31 and 33 times the standard levels of potable water, respectively.” The 2004 report estimated that it would cost $98.3 million to remove all the contaminated soil from Camp Carroll. Both the 1992 and 2004 reports state that a significant amount of soil had been excavated, but they differ as to when this actually happened. According to the Korea Times, the 2004 report concluded, “The fate of the excavated drums is unknown”.

So what happened to the buried chemicals?

Camp Carroll is located in Waegwan, about 20 miles north of Daegu. “If Agent Orange was dumped in 1978, the drums may have already eroded. And the toxic substance could have contaminated the soil and underground water near the area,” said Chung In-cheol of Green Korea United. “The U.S. camp is situated just 630 meters away from the Nakdong River,” says Chung, “which is the water source for major cities like Daegu and Busan.”

Cancer rates in the Chilgok area near Camp Carroll were up to 18.3 percent higher than the national average between 2005 and 2009, according to Statistics Korea’s website, and mortality rates for nervous system diseases were above the national average.

Soil and Water Contamination

Environmental contamination on U.S. bases in South Korea has been a source of contention between Washington and Seoul. Since 2001, South Korea has spent $3.4 million to clean up 2,000 tons of oil-contaminated ground water near Yongsan Army Garrison and Camp Kim. The South Korean military is now conducting environmental tests at 85 former U.S. bases that were returned to South Korean control between 1990 and 2003.

With the latest revelations, the South Korean public is calling for a full-scale assessment of the environmental damage of all U.S. military facilities in Korea. Under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the two nations, the United States has no responsibility to clean up the land it uses for bases. Some advocates are seeking a revision of the SOFA to hold Washington responsible for the contamination it causes.

After House spoke out, the USFK and the South Korean government assured the public that they would research his claims, though they disagreed about the method of investigation. The USFK preferred to use ground-penetrating radar (GPR) while the South Korean government insisted on sampling the soil and underground water. According to Hankyoreh, GPR can test for foreign matter such as canisters containing harmful materials, but it cannot verify soil or water contamination. “The South Korean government has repeatedly stated that this kind of investigation is incapable of resolving the questions harbored by the population,” said a Ministry of the Environment official.

The joint ROK-U.S. team is using ground-penetrating radar and electrical resistivity devices at 41 sites since the news broke in late May. According to a team official, the USFK is not just worried about dioxin, but other toxic and carcinogenic materials, which soil and water tests can detect. Indeed, investigation of an underground stream and groundwater near Camp Carroll has shown traces of PCE, a known carcinogen that attacks the nervous system and can cause reproduction problems. The Chilgok regional government sealed the well upon learning from the joint Korea-U.S. team that the amount of PCE exceeded the level for acceptable drinking water.

Lessons from Vietnam

Agent Orange contains the deadly chemical dioxin, a byproduct of industrial processes involving chlorine or bromine. Decades after its use in Vietnam, there is still great controversy about its effects on human and environmental health, despite the fact grandchildren of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians have been born with abnormalities attributable to their ancestors’ exposure.

In 1995, Arnold Schecter and Le Cao Dai of the Vietnam Red Cross published research findings showing “that high levels of dioxin contamination persist in the blood, tissue, and breast milk of Vietnamese living in sprayed areas.” Schecter tested soil and human tissue samples from people living near the former Bien Hoa U.S. military base where 7,500 gallons of Agent Orange were spilled in 1970.

In 1998, Hatfield Consultants published the results of a four-year study of soil and water samples in the A Luoi valley near the Ho Chi Minh trail and the site of three former U.S. Special Forces bases where Agent Orange was stored and sprayed. Working with Vietnamese scientists, Hatfield found “a consistent pattern of food chain contamination by Agent Orange dioxin… which included soil, fishpond sediment, cultured fish, ducks and humans.” They found dioxin levels in some breast milk samples to be dozens of times higher than maximum levels recommended by the World Health Organization.

Although Vietnamese officials and scientists believe that many thousands of people are victims of Agent Orange, “remarkably little has been proved with scientific certainty,” Robert Dreyfuss wrote in 2000. The Institute of Medicine reports “strong evidence that exposures to herbicides is associated with five serious diseases, including Hodgkin’s disease and a form of leukemia… and ‘suggestive’ evidence that herbicides might cause birth defects and cancer.” A major factor limiting serious research into dioxin contamination is the high costs. According to Dreyfuss, it cost $600 to $1000 to test one single soil or tissue sample for tiny traces of Agent Orange dioxin.

Since 1981, U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War who were exposed to dioxin have been entitled to register with the Veteran Administration’s Agent Orange Registry. Of the nearly 3 million U.S. soldiers who served in Vietnam, approximately 300,000 veterans are on the list and entitled to free annual health exams. In a 2003 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, David Perlman wrote that more than 22,000 vets have successfully claimed disability and are entitled to “free long-term treatment for a variety of disorders that are ‘presumptively’ caused by exposure to dioxin.” Compensation has ranged from $104 to $2,193 a month.

U.S. veterans have attempted to sue the manufacturers of Agent Orange for compensation. In 1984, seven U.S. chemical companies agreed to settle a suit brought by U.S. veterans in 1979. In making this settlement, the companies refused to accept liability, claiming that the scientific evidence did not prove Agent Orange was responsible for the medical conditions alleged. By 1997, 291,000 U.S. veterans had received a total of $180 million dollars over a period of 12 years. “My brother was given $362, and me, I was given $60,” recalls U.S. veteran George Johnson. “My brother has never been able to have kids.”

South Korean veterans who served in the Vietnam War also attempted to sue Agent Orange manufacturers. In 2006, the Korea Times reported that the “Seoul High Court ruled that Dow Chemical and Monsanto should pay $63 billion won ($62 million) to a group of 6,700 Korean veterans… who first filed lawsuits against the company in 1999.” However, this ruling is largely symbolic since the Korean authorities cannot force the companies to comply.

Why Act Now?

When asked why he came forward now, Steve House said, “I’ve wanted the government to take care of this nightmare I’ve had to live with for the last 30 years. I don’t want to poison kids or anything, and I don’t want to hurt GIs.”

For House and other vets, also at issue is the question of medical compensation. According to the U.S. Veterans Affairs website, “Veterans who served … in or near the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) anytime between April 1, 1968 and August 31, 1971 and who have a disease VA recognizes as associated with Agent Orange exposure are presumed to have been exposed to herbicides. These Veterans do not have to show they were exposed to Agent Orange to get disability compensation for these diseases.” Veterans like House, however, who were exposed to Agent Orange after this time period, or in other parts of Korea outside of the DMZ, are not considered eligible for disability compensation.

Although more information is likely to emerge from the joint U.S.-R.O.K. investigation in the coming weeks, both the U.S. and Korean public must ask and demand answers to many urgent questions. What happened to the barrels of Agent Orange and contaminated soil at Camp Carroll? How much dioxin and other contaminants have leached into the soils surrounding Camp Carroll and other U.S. military bases? Will the U.S. government provide medical assistance and financial compensation to the veterans who handled a substance that was known to be toxic in 1978? Who will compensate the Korean people who may have been exposed to these contaminants – that the U.S. military knew of as far back as 1992, but never told the So.uth Korean government

Based on the experience of thousands of U.S. vets and civilians who live around U.S. bases — in this country and overseas — even routine military operations can have serious long-term costs to human health and the environment. Without adequately addressing its toxic legacy in South Korea, the U.S. military continues to take fertile land to expand and create new bases, as it did in seizing rice paddies from farmers in Pyongtaek. The ROK-U.S. naval base now under construction on Jeju Island will have a devastating impact on the island’s marine ecology, affecting fishermen and women sea divers who depend on the clean sea for their livelihood, and the Korean people who rely on the ocean for seafood. The blind rhetoric of national security must no longer trump human security, certainly not when the U.S. military isn’t even willing to provide adequate medical care to its own veterans and protection to the Korean people they are purportedly in Korea to defend.

Christine Ahn is the executive director of the Korea Policy Institute and a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus, and Gwyn Kirk is a member of Women for Genuine Security and a contributor to FPIF.
  • John

    I was stationed at Osan AFB in Korea from 69-71. I have many of the same problems. I was told the entire perimeter of the base was hand sprayed after the Pueblo crisis. There was no vegetation on the perimeter of the base. I too have many of the same problems and just had a heart transplant.

    • robertpetitt

      I have lymfornimer , Prostrae and Colon cancers, Heart attact, eyes and hearing problem. I am on the AO List.

  • John

    Saw barrels of it unloaded off C-123’s at Osan AFB.

    • Phil Davis

      I saw them spraying Agent Orange by plane ENE of the landing strip OSAN 1974-1975. Also saw barrels being buried NE of Camp Carroll 1974.

    • robertpetitt

      I was at Osan in 69-70 at the 6314 CES Water Plant. I need you or some one to contact me by email asap.

  • Edward Surprenant

    I was station in korea at CAMP HUMPHREYS FROM 1970 TO1972.In the spring of 1971 i seen ROK’S OR (KATYSA’S) spraying around the airfield fence. A short time later we were told not to drink any water or eat any food in the village ANJEONG-RI.. Water bags were put up around the hanger area at the airfield and company area. A short time after the spraying all the foliage was dead around the fence area and some of the rice fields I have type 2 diabetes melliyus , heart problem, and parkinson disease my e-mail

  • kimchiman13

    Subject: Agent Orange – Korea –
    Where is the Truth?

    Feb 2015, I was at the VA Hospital in
    Marion, IL getting shots to my right knee and hips at the Orthopedic
    Clinic. As I was discussing some of my other issues with my limbs,
    they proceed to claim that I probable have neuropathy in my hands and
    possible feet. Going to recommend me to a Neurologist for that and
    some other issues! Neuropathy is another symptom of Agent Orange
    Dioxins, in less then a year I have been detected with 3 A.O.

    On top of that, I had a another
    veteran of the Korean DMZ contact me about A.O. He served up on the
    DMZ only 87-88. He explained to me that his nurse mention to him,
    asking if he been in contact with Agent Orange whatsoever! He did
    not even know that A.O. was used in Korea. When the nurse mention
    it, he started doing some online research and realize that his
    service in Korea quite possible put him in contact with A.O.

    I myself did not know till a year ago,
    that Agent Orange was used in Korea! VA gives the bogus presumptive
    dates of 68 to 71 for Korea! But we all know that is untrue, to many
    veterans before and after those dates are suffering from way to many
    A.O. related illnesses! Also in the past year, there has been VA
    Claims won before and after those dates! So they are slowly
    admitting there is a A.O. issue that is a lot bigger then they will

    Also in the past year, I have been in
    communications with many veterans that have served before and after
    the bogus dates, who are and now just realizing, they are battling
    A.O. related illnesses! And the one common factor we all have, we
    served in Korea especially up on the DMZ!!! “Hello Houston, we
    have a problem!!!”

    In Vietnam, the government is quietly
    assisting in cleaning up in the areas that Agent Orange was used, but
    we have not in Korea yet! They are cleaning up, do to the long term
    effects of A.O. in the soil and water, that has effected the
    Vietnamese people! What about Korea? The American and Korean people
    who have been exposed to it for 40 plus years? Is the Korean
    government in cohoots with the American government to keep this
    coverup going?

    For those that never served in Korea
    especially before 1991 up on the DMZ, don’t realize the coverups that
    have gone on for years, and years, and years! Apparently Agent
    Orange is also in that mix of coverups! When is the VA and our
    politicians going to realize, many of our fellow DMZ Veterans and
    fighting dying from their hidden Agenda! They talk about taking care
    of our Veterans, but they are still omitting those Veterans that
    served in Korea!

    Thomas J. Lucken

    “Imjin Scout”

  • Thomas Lucken

    Korea – Agent Orange – Honor the Promise!!!

  • Thomas Lucken

    Korea – Agent Orange Facebook Group, over 758 members in 16 months:

    “Honor the Promise”

  • Regina Bekina

    I lived on South Post, Yongsan Eighth Army Garrison, Seoul, Korea for half a decade with my family as military dependent, from 1973-78.

    Being a young boy, I explored the area thoroughly (and dirtily), as a kid will, and I saw things that contradict reports as to what, how much, and when it started.
    When I then read more about The Agreement between the US military and the South Korean government back then (dictator Park Chung Hee),
    a goose went down my back.

    This sizeable residential neighborhood was located in between a commissary and a golf course, and 1500 feet down the hill south from where “2,000 tons of contaminated water since 2001” have been pumped out, according to the 2011 Korea Herald link below:

    I was startled to come across this story just a year ago – imagine discovering that a leaking toxic chemical dump has been discovered in the neighborhood in which grew up.

    There have been literally countless people, Korean and foreign, who have possibly been exposed to the long-term effects of these Love Canal-toxins.
    This to me is starting to look like a triangle of great moral hazard, as the term goes, in the ways that the SOFA agreement has possibly been abused.

    Yongsan Chemicals, I have now noticed on satellite imagery, has been located nearby for decades, along the border of the military base where the spill has been located.
    I understand that GIs/Seabees are coming forward about the clandestine dumping of drums of Agent Orange throughout different bases on behalf of the US military, something in which they took part during the 70’s, after the American withdrawal from Vietnam.

    What were they going to do, take it home to America? Some of it was dumped into the Pacific, evidently.

    US aircraft, most particularly Huey choppers, did constant rounds over the area like dragonflies, and the heliport was directly across from a large playground on the southern edge of the base, by the river.

    The reason I am weighing in here is this:

    I firmly believe that the dumping started during the 70’s.

    Through the years there was a sludge that came through the neighborhood drainage system across the street from our house.
    From down the hill it drained out of a culvert and into a brook through the golf course, which led south to the Han River (the source of the city’s drinking water, I believe).
    I used to look for errant golf balls all in there and I’ll never forget the indescribable smell of that black crud throughout the area – I can smell it now, after 40 years. It was pungent year in year out, and especially during hot, wet weather.
    Once a buddy of mine and I both slipped into a pond that was created just beyond that culvert itself, a foul body of what could be described as water, but which had rainbows of oil curling around all on top of it.
    I clearly remember dripping home to clean up, my flared Toughskins ruined.

    The golf course, which was as immodest and huge as the commissary and PX were, was dotted with several ponds, everyone of them full of chirping frogs during the spring and summer. Big, steroidal frogs that were hard to keep a hold of if you tried to catch them.
    A couple of summers before we left Korea they disappeared, never to come back, and I looked. I remember the disappointment of their disappearance quite well. I was like, eight. We left when I was 10, and I put the golf course and the frogs, and a lot of other things besides, in the past.

    All of the hundreds of families like ours that lived in Yongsan have been scattered to the 52 states, so any patterns of cancer rates, neurological harm or consecutive birth defects wouldn’t be readily associated with any of this, would it.

    Koreans who have lived around these bases all their lives have had little choice but to answer to the Chaebols. Itaewon has probably had a somewhat transient population, also.

    Incidentally, do I understand that South Korea has an autism rate that is markedly higher than that of the average of the rest of the developed world?

    Is there anyone out there who lived in Yongsan who might know anything about this?